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Last 400 Moroccan POWs freed

50 await formal release presided over by U.S. senator

From Al Goodman
CNN Madrid Bureau Chief

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Thousands protested in March in the Morrocan capital Rabat demanding the POWs' release.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Western Sahara's exiled Polisario Front independence movement has released all of its remaining Moroccan prisoners of war -- a total of 404 -- the International Committee of the Red Cross and a U.S. official said.

The release on Thursday occurred in Tindouf, southwest Algeria, where the Polisario is based, in a move the international community has long advocated. Some of the prisoners had been held since the 1970s.

The U.S. official, in Tindouf, told CNN that the Polisario signed papers earlier Thursday "technically" releasing all 404 Moroccan POWs to the Red Cross, but 50 remained in Polisario control for several more hours.

The Polisario finally released the remaining 50 at 5 p.m. (noon ET) in a formal ceremony presided over by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, President George W. Bush's envoy to the prisoner release, the U.S. official said.

An ICRC statement said the release of the prisoners "follows mediation by the United States."

All 404 Moroccans who have been POWs were due to be flown later Thursday to Agadir in northern Morocco, aboard a U.S.-chartered and -piloted aircraft, U.S. officials told CNN.

The Polisario originally planned to release all 404 prisoners in the formal ceremony with Lugar, the U.S. official said. But Algerian and U.S. authorities said they would not have enough time to conduct security checks on the released prisoners and still get them on planes to Morocco, which had to leave before dark, when the small Tindouf airport closed.

The Polisario then agreed to release most of the Moroccans earlier than expected, holding back 50 for the formal ceremony with Lugar, the U.S. official said.

The release of the 404 "is the product of quiet and intense diplomatic efforts among the United States, Morocco and Algeria," the White House said in a statement released from Crawford, Texas, where Bush is on vacation at his ranch.

"The humanitarian success was achieved in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross," the statement added.

The ICRC, in its own written statement, said: "Their repatriation ends a long period of internment and marks an important step in resolving the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in the Western Sahara."

The United Nations -- which mediated a cease-fire in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front -- and the international community had repeatedly called on the Polisario to release the Moroccan prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

The conflict over the disputed territory of Western Sahara has strained relations between Algeria and its neighbor Morocco and it pitted Morocco against Polisario Front fighters in a long war over the land, after former colonial power Spain withdrew in 1975.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry issued a statement lauding the prisoner release and said it hopes "this decision will create a climate of confidence between the parties to bring about new dynamic to solve the Western Sahara conflict under the U.N. framework."

The Polisario Front seeks independence for Western Sahara.

Lugar earlier Thursday met with Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers to discuss "the global war on terror and other regional issues," the White House statement said.

U.S. Gen. James Jones, supreme allied commander for Europe, was also expected to be in Tindouf with Lugar, an Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lugar was due later to travel with the released Moroccans to Morocco and hold meetings with Moroccan officials on "counterterrorism and promoting democracy in the region," the White House said.

Lugar next was due in Libya for official meetings "as a part of the president's initiative to move toward more normal relations reflecting that country's renunciation of terrorism and abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction and longer-range missiles," the White House said.

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